Be careful you don’t morph into the firm you left

Sep 04, 2006

I could talk about growth all day and why it’s good to be a growth firm. Any faithful reader of The Zweig Letter over the last 14 years has heard me pounding the growth drum more than once. But the fact is, for many companies, they don’t really make the choice to grow. The market decides for them. The firm does something well (and better than its competitors), and, as a result, grows. This is all well and good except for one thing. Chances are the founders of these growing companies worked somewhere else in this business before starting their new, growing companies. And most of those founders weren’t terribly happy in their previous companies. That’s what motivated them to strike out on their own. The problem is this— along with growth (and resulting size), many growing companies morph into exactly what their founders hated— big, bureaucratic, political, stale work environments that stifle the creativity of their people and eventually underserve their clients. That’s quite a proclamation, I know— and it doesn’t happen overnight— but it does, too often, happen. I think this phenomenon is something every firm founder needs to watch out for because if they don’t, they’ll end up having to start over again (or wanting to start over, but not being able to!). Starting over, when you are 20 years older and have to first find a way out of a firm that may even bear your name, is hard! I don’t think “staying small successfully” is the answer. You will not be able to keep good employees if that is your mantra— they’ll all want to be somewhere where a rising tide can lift their ship. So what can you do to keep this from happening to you and your company? Here are some ideas: Watch out for the outsiders you bring in. Many will come from other, larger firms. They may think they have all the answers on how to do things— and the answer, too often, is just like the firm they left! Be careful and don’t let the newcomers make too many changes— especially those at the managerial level— until they really understand YOUR culture and way of doing things— and why you think that’s important. Keep the staff “experts” in check. I’m talking about the human resources, marketing, accounting, acquisition, and strategic planning people who are supposed to guide these functions in your firm. While many will have good ideas and experience you can benefit from, some will have their own agendas that are not necessarily in your best interests to follow. Too many of these people take offense if you don’t immediately implement their recommendations, as if you don’t have any respect for their area of expertise. While this may or may not be the case, all of these people need to fully understand the kind of firm culture you are trying to create and sustain and how that marries up with their area of interest. Make sure you know the little people. I hate the term “little people” but don’t know a better way to say that you better keep talking with everyone in the company at every level. Don’t forget where you came from and keep these relationships at all levels of the firm alive. The real workers in the firm know your problems and where things are going wrong in the system. And those who have been with you since the beginning, regardless of their position in the firm, are excellent at reminding you what you once stood for and what kind of firm you set out to be. Fight bureaucracy. Watch out for too many meetings, too many job descriptions, and too much structure to your pay. If multiple levels of approval aren’t really necessary, stop the madness. If your organization chart is starting to look like that of General Motors Corporation, change it. Anything that smacks of a “mega firm” has the potential to demotivate and alienate a lot of people. It’s always a good idea to look in the mirror every once in a while and see if you like what is staring back at you. If not, make changes! Originally published 9/04/2006

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.